Whistlin' Dixie in a Nor'easter

A Novel

Dixie Series (Volume 1)

Lisa Patton

Thomas Dunne Books

A Miserable Freezing Cold New Year’s Day – Willingham, Vermont
 
     No one ever told me you can’t bury somebody up North in the wintertime. 
     So when my little fifteen-year-old Yorkie, Princess Grace Kelly, decided to pick New Year’s Eve to go to doggie heaven, we had a problem.  My handyman Jeb had the nerve to tell me that Gracie would have to wait in a shoebox on a garden-shed shelf until spring, or “The Thaw” as the Vermonters call it.  I told him, in no uncertain terms, that I could never make Gracie do that and his solution was simply not an option.  I mean the least I could do was give her a proper burial with a funeral and all, after dragging her 1,473 miles away from home, in her golden years no less, to a place where tee-teeing outside for her was not an option.  The first time I ever set her down to go on top of the four-foot snowdrift outside our door at the Inn, she was nearly buried alive.
     The first thing you need to know about me is that I am not a pushover.  I’ll admit to being a little naïve, maybe, but I am no doormat.  My girlfriends thought I was a huge doormat, but moving all the way to Vermont changed that forever.
     Anyway, here I was living in sub-zero Vermont, but bound and determined to get Gracie into that ground.  My nose was completely stopped up from crying when I called my best friend Virginia to give her the news.
     “Gracie’s gone,” I wailed into the phone as soon as she answered.
     “What’d you say?  I can barely understand you.”
     “PRINCESS - GRACE - KELLY - IS – DEAD.”  I screamed.
     “Gosh Leelee, you scared me.  I thought something catastrophic had happened.” 
     “This is catastrophic.”
     “I know, I know.  I’m sorry.  When did it happen?”
     “She took her last breath in the middle of New Year’s Eve dinner at the Inn.  The busiest night of the whole year.  It’s all my fault!” I sobbed.
     “It’s all what?  You’re gonna have to blow your nose.”
     I reached over for another Kleenex and honked into the phone.  “I said . . . it’s all my fault!”
     “What do you mean?  Gracie was old, Leelee.  It was her time.”
     My bottom lip started to quiver.  “She hated it here.  And that’s only the beginning.  Not only did Gracie just drop dead out of nowhere but four of my guests at the Inn caused a blackout in the middle of dinner.”
     “You’re kidding!” 
     “I wish I was.”  I sniffed a few times more.  “Then - to top it all off - this couple showed up just before midnight to check into their room.  I didn’t have a room for them, Virginia.  I overbooked the Inn by mistake and there wasn’t a room to be had in all of Southern Vermont.” 
     “Wha’d you do then?” Virginia sounded scared for me.
     “I did the only thing I could do.  I made room for them.” 
     “Oh my gosh, Leelee, this would only happen to you.  Don’t tell me they bunked up with yall.” 
     “It’s a long story.  Have you got an hour?” 
     “I’ve got all the time in the world, but before you get started I wanna know one thing.”
     “Okay, what?” 
     “When are you gonna finally give up this ludicrous notion of being the only Southern Belle innkeeper in the state of Vermont and come home?” 
     “I’m always thinking about home, Virgy. Always.”
 

A Wonderful Hot July Evening - Memphis, Tennessee
 
Chapter One
 
     Memphis is my home.  It always will be no matter where I live.  In the South we
have a tendency to be possessive of our hometowns.  A Memphis girl can marry a Birmingham boy, raise her family there and live out the rest of her days in Alabama.  But when her obituary runs in the Birmingham Post-Herald, it will still claim Memphis as her home. 
     The only other place I’d spent anytime at all was Oxford, Mississippi. Going to college at Ole Miss was more like “a four-and-a-half year vacation,” according to Daddy.  But the point is I had no desire to ever leave my home again.  I was perfectly happy.  
     Memphis gives me a peaceful feeling just thinking about it.  Downtown sits way up on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi.  The city itself is as flat as a pancake, which makes it the most beautiful place in the world to watch the sunset. Pinks, reds, yellows and oranges streak the sky and you can watch the entire fireball melt into the cotton fields of Arkansas right across the river.
     When you drive down parts of Poplar Avenue with the windows rolled down and smell barbeque cooking, it’s impossible not to turn in to Corky’s or Little Pig’s for a sandwich.  Daddy would order his “white pig strictly lean.”  I order mine the same way all because of him.
      If you come to Memphis it would be well worth your while to visit in the springtime. Azaleas and dogwoods color the town white, pink and red as far as the eye can see.  It’s nice and warm, with the temperature hovering between seventy-five and eighty-five degrees.  I know people say the summer is sweltering, but it never bothers me.
     Probably our biggest brag is Elvis.  Everybody over the age of thirty has some sort of an Elvis story, whether it’s driving by Graceland and seeing him in his front yard or knowing somebody who knows one of his step-brothers personally - or even still, knowing someone who went to his doctor, Dr. Nick.  Elvis drove a truck for Daddy once before he was famous.  That’s our claim to Elvis fame.
     I fell in love with a Memphis boy when I was sixteen-years-old and married him eight years later.  I first had a huge crush on him way back in the tenth grade.  Baker Satterfield hardly knew I was on this earth until my bosoms finally popped out our senior year in high school.  I went from an A-cup to a D-cup in nine months.  No wonder I attracted his attention.
     At our graduation party Baker spent most of the evening trying to flirt with me.  He ignored his date and threw popcorn at me and pinched my butt, very sneakily, every chance he could.  But too bad for him.  I had a date with one of his best friends, Jimmy Hudson.  Jimmy Hudson didn’t ignore me and I certainly didn’t ignore him.  When we weren’t talking or slow dancing . . . we were making out.  I’d have one eye shut and the other slightly open trying to see if Baker was watching us.  Without fail, he’d be boring a hole right in our direction.  So I’d lay it on extra thick.  I’d start giggling at whatever Jimmy said and run my hands though his hair or kiss him playfully on the neck.
     You should have seen the way I gloated when I got home that night, just thinking about finally having one up on Baker Satterfield.  It served him right for overlooking me just because my chest was flat.  Baker told me later that he spent four frustrating years at UT dreaming about my newly blossomed bosoms.  
     We met up again after college graduation and two years later his dreams were nestled right next to him every night in Memphis.  As far as I was concerned they could stay nestled that way forever.  But when Baker decided to chase another dream, my life was transformed from an unswerving line onto a collision course at the Indy 500 almost overnight.
     The evening Baker shared his new dream with me occupies a permanent place in my memory.  He was in a terrific mood, like he’d just hit a hole-in-one on the back nine at the country club with all his buddies watching.  He was whistling and snapping his fingers, and sliding his loafers across the kitchen floor as he helped me clear the dinner table.  Normally he would have had the remote control in his hand by this time, flipping through the channels for any show remotely connected to sports.  He never actually sat down to watch until the kitchen was clean.  He’d stand in front of the TV like he was pausing just to get the score.  “I’ll be right there, honey.  Hold on.  Scores up next,” he’d shout from the den.  But I always knew what he was doing. 
     I was an all-sports widow.  What really gets me is there is never a break from sports.  In the summer it’s baseball, which slides into fall, overlapped by football, which passes into basketball before anyone has a chance to breathe.  Football and basketball run side by side for a while, and as if that’s not enough, golf has to iron its way in between the two every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. 
     But this particular July night, he never even turned on the TV.  He took Gracie out for an evening stroll instead of opening the back door and letting her run outside for her final potty break.  I was reading to the girls when Baker returned from the walk and popped his head into their bedroom. 
     “Honey.”  There was a hush to his voice. “Come on out to the porch when you’re done. I’m making peach daiquiris.”
     “Peach daiquiris.  Yum.  What’s the occasion?”
     “No occasion really, I just thought you’d be in the mood for a daiquiri as hot as it’s been lately.” 
     “Can I have one too, Daddy?” Sarah, our not quite five-year-old, perked up and said.      
     Baker stood in the doorway and blew her a kiss.  “Not tonight.  It’s already past your
bedtime.  But I’ll make a special one just for you tomorrow night.”
     “But I want one today, Daddy.” She sat straight up with a pout.  Sarah takes after her father - thick black, wavy hair and indigo eyes. 
     “Tomorrow.  Look, your sister is already asleep and if you don’t go fast Mr. Sandman will be visiting Isabella before you.”  Two and a half year-old Issie was on the side of the bed next to the wall, already conked out.
     Sarah plopped back down, buried her face in her pillow and put her arm around me.
     “Night Sarah,” Baker said, in a teasing way.  When she wouldn’t answer him he turned to me, “I’ll meet you outside when you’re done.”
     “I’ll just be a few more minutes.” 
     Baker gave me that look.  That incredibly intoxicating sexy look, his I-want-you look, and walked out of the room. 
     We settled on the back-porch swing, swaying back and forth to the croaking rhythm of a toad.  Hundreds of lightning bugs danced all around us and the neighborhood dogs chatted with one another in the distance.  The daiquiri was sweet, just the way I like it, not too much rum and little pieces of peach still large enough to chew.
     “Honey,” Baker said, breaking the silence, as he twisted my curls with his fingers, one at a time, and leered at me with his gorgeous sapphire eyes.  “You know what I want?  I want our girls to grow up in a place where people still leave their doors unlocked and their car keys in the ignition.” 
    “Mmhmm.” I rested my head on his shoulder and pulled my legs up under me onto the swing.  “We could move down to Collierville and have room for horses and maybe even a fishing pond for you.  Sarah’s been begging for riding lessons.  Lots of the girls in her class are taking.” 
     I could already see it – 19th century white farmhouse, long driveway, pond on the right, barn on the left - horses running around and daffodils sprinkled everywhere.
     “Yeah, but even better, we could own our own business and have off four months out of the year.  I wouldn’t have to travel, and I could help you out a lot more with the girls.”  Baker had his arm around me by now, running his hand through my long strawberry blond hair.
     “That sounds good, baby, but what insurance company closes four months out of the year?”  I asked, still sipping on my daiquiri.
     Baker’s tone plummeted to that voice he gets when he’s locked in the bathroom with the Sunday paper and doesn’t want to be disturbed. He moved his arm and looked at me dead on. “I’m sick of the insurance business.  In fact, I’m downright miserable in the insurance business.  It’s boring.  All I ever do is work, and I’m fed up with spending only two hours a day with my children.  Sarah and Isabella are almost five and three and I feel like I barely know them.”
     I should mention he talks with his hands.  Well - we both do, but at this point, Baker’s arms were swinging all over the place.  “I’m thinking big, Leelee, - something completely different and radical.  I say, we should get the hell out of here and move somewhere new and exciting like . . . like . . . Vermont!”
     “Baker, please.  You’ve been reading too many Orvis catalogs.”  Baker has a storeroom off the garage to house his abundant supply of fly-fishing gear, plus every show Bill Dance has ever starred in on videotape.
    “No, Leelee, I have not been reading too many Orvis catalogs.  Vermont is a wonderful state, and . . . you’re right, it does happen to have some of the best trout fishing in the country.  But, there’s virtually no crime at all in Vermont.  The way I see it . . . it’s the perfect place to live and raise a family.”
     He might as well have been talking about Yugoslavia - it was just as foreign to me.  “Vermont.  Vermont!” I bolted straight up from my relaxing position. “You can’t be serious?”
     “I’ve never been more serious in my life.”  With that Baker leaped off the swing, almost upsetting my daiquiri, and ran into the house.  Before the swing even had a chance to slow down, he was bolting back out the door with his briefcase in one hand and a fresh daiquiri in the other.  He plopped back down on the swing, put his drink on the floor beside him and placed the briefcase on his lap, unsnapping the locks.  The briefcase popped open and lying right on top was the latest copy of American Inns magazine.  He grabbed it up, licked his right thumb and started flipping through the pages.  In the back of the magazine one of the pages was dog-eared.  Baker read aloud, with such intense emotion you’d have thought he was auditioning for the role of Hamlet.  “Get a hold of this!” he said.
Located in a village setting near two major ski resorts, Vermont’s Premier Restaurant/Inn is for sale.  Circa 1700’s, The Vermont Haus Inn has nine guest rooms, most with private bath, 7 fireplaces, gracious lawns, 20 acres and historic stonewalls. This magnificent opportunity includes operating a full service, high gross, world gourmet acclaim restaurant along with a lifestyle that most people can only dream about.”
     He looked over at me with a sanguine face before continuing.
“Mint, mint condition. Superb owner’s quarters. Owners retiring.  Price reduced from $555,000.00 to $410,000.00 A must see for anyone serious about owning a quaint Vermont country inn. Ed Baldwin Agency, 10 Hill Street, Fairhope, Vermont. 1-802-CALL-ED-B
     He dropped the magazine on his lap, sat back in the swing and let out a euphoric sigh. “What do you think, honey!”  Baker was beside himself with joy.  “Look at all we could have in Vermont,” he thumped the page with the back of his hand,  “just by selling our house here!  Twenty acres - an Inn - and a business for not much more than the price of this house.”
      I was stunned.  It was the only time in my life that I can honestly say I was truly speechless. 
      Baker used this lull in the conversation to advance to exhibit B.  He must have stopped by the bookstore on his lunch break, because three picture books on Vermont were the next items to emerge from his briefcase.  He started flipping through the pages and showing me the pictures.  “Look, honey, aren’t these beautiful.  Have you ever seen trees come alive like this?  Remember that time you told me you had always wanted to take a trip to New England to see the fall foliage?  Think what it would be like to live there and see it every year.”
     I’m frozen.  No, I’m just not hearing him correctly.
     “I’ve always wanted to own my own restaurant.  You know that.  I’ve managed two or three of them – there’s nothing to it.  And you said yourself that waiting tables was one of the most fun jobs you’ve ever had.”
     “Baker,” I said, springing back to life.  “I was in college when I waited tables.  Yeah, it was fun.  But that’s only because Jay Stockley worked there, too.  He was president of SAE and I had a big, fat crush on him.  Waitressing was not work.  It was a way to flirt with Jay Stockley.”  
     Baker was so busy looking through the pages of that Vermont book, I wondered if he was even listening to me. 
     I put my hand along side his cheek and turned it around to face me. “I couldn’t even tell you if Vermont is the little state on the right or the little state on the left, way up there at the top of the map.  All I can tell you about Vermont is they make good maple syrup there.”
     “Leelee . . . please,” Baker said in his know-it-all voice and looked down again at the pictures.
     “Baker.  What would your daddy say?” I had to dig deep, scramble for anything that might knock some sense into him. “He’s owned Satterfield Allstate for how many years?”
     “Who cares? I never wanted to go into the insurance business in the first place.  Never.  My dad decided that for me the minute he saw something hanging in between the legs of his newborn baby.”
     I considered what he said, and kind of saw his point.
     “I’m bored, Leelee! It’s time to see the world.”
     “Okay, but can’t we just travel around the world? Do we have to move?”
     “Have you any idea what it feels like to wake up every morning, take a shower, shave my face, eat a bowl of cereal, then drive across town to work, where I sit at the same desk, in the same office and look at the same old-woman-secretary who’s constantly telling me ‘I have more seniority than anybody else in the entire office except Mr. Satterfield senior.’ Then she looks over at me like she’s got something big on me. I don’t give a shit how long she or anyone else in that office has been there.”
     “Well, it helps with our lifestyle.”  I was always careful when it came to talking about Baker’s income.  It wasn’t his fault he didn’t have family money.  Daddy’s the reason we had what we had - a beautiful home that I’d spent over a year decorating, and a ski boat that was docked at Pickwick Lake, giving us hours of pleasure in the summertime. Dare I mention that my husband was a sportsaholic with a golf and fishing habit that could have bought us a house to go with the boat on Pickwick Lake. 
     “But it’s driving me crazy in the process.”  Baker was hanging his head now, with his hands on either side of his temples, his eyes closed.  If there’s one thing I hate, it’s to see a grown man in agony.  I put my arms around him and pulled him over toward me so his head was resting on my shoulder. 
     “I don’t want you to be unhappy, Baker.  I’m happy when you’re happy.  But moving all the way to . . . to . . . Yankeeville, I don’t know.  I just don’t know about that.”
     “Honey, look, will you go with me to see the place?  You might fall in love with Vermont.  Just tell me you’ll think about it baby, please.”  He was giving me that look again.  And this time his hand was working its way up one leg of my shorts.
      I reached over, pushed it away and looked him in the eye, my nose about two inches from his nose.  “I’ll think about it.  But that’s all.  And don’t bug me.  I’ll let you know when I’m finished thinking about it.”
     “I’ll get you those diamond earrings.”
     “Are you bribing me Baker Satterfield?”
     “And so what if I am?”
     “I cash in on bribes, that’s what.  Now will you please go get me another daiquiri?”
     “They’re good, aren’t they?”
     “Delicious.  But making my favorite daiquiri is not going to make me move to a place where the people talk like their noses are stopped up,” I said, and stretched out my legs on top of his. 
     “Just consider it.  That’s all I’m asking.”
     “All right, all right.  I’ll do that much.  I’ll consider it.”
     Baker cut his eyes over at me and smirked.  What Baker knew - and what I knew - is that once he got me to consider something, he was usually home free.
     His glass was empty by this time also.  Stopping the motion with his feet, he rose from the swing.  “I’ll be back.”  He leaned over to kiss my lips.  Just before entering the house he turned around.  “By the way, it’s the little state on the left.  Vermont borders New York, not Maine.”
     “Oh thank you, Mr. McNally.”
     “You’re welcome, Miss O’Hara.”
     “Would you go on and get my daiquiri please?”
    
     Falling asleep that night was rough. I lied in bed for hours, staring into the darkness, my husband sound asleep beside me. I wanted to please him.  I loved and adored him. And I had for over half my life. But my goodness, this was a tall order.  Leaving my home - Memphis Tennessee - for a place where I had never even stepped foot? Not Birmingham, not Atlanta, not Oxford, Mississippi even.  Baker was talking about moving all the way up to a place where I didn’t know one soul.  And, as I would later find out, was a heck of a lot farther away than I ever imagined.